The art of sound

MAY 2014 – At Thirteen Hof in Cape Town, music specialist Joachim Spelling elevates audio to the realms of art, displaying high-end sound systems that represent the pinnacle of audio engineering.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that the perception of beauty is forever subjective. That is without doubt true, and it’s impossible for one person to tell another that a painting, photograph or piece of music is intrinsically more beautiful than the next. How we perceive beauty is entirely, and wonderfully, of our own making. Your opinion counts for no more, or less, than the person sitting next to you as you read this feature. However, consider the medium. For how you experience a piece of art surely affects your appreciation of it? Is a plastic imitation of Michelangelo’s David as impressive as the stony flesh standing in the Accademia Gallery in Firenze? Even better, consider the pages you’re holding right now. Imagine they were cheap newsprint, faded and smudged. Would the words be as easy to read? Would the images inspire you as much as they do? Surely not.

For art is, to a large degree, defined by the way in which it is consumed. And it’s this means of appreciating the end that inspires Joachim Spelling each and every day, as he welcomes music-lovers into his charming, idiosyncratic gallery and studio in the leafy suburb of Gardens above Cape Town’s City Bowl. Born in Düsseldorf and based in Berlin for many years, Spelling – together with his wife Ncumisa and their three-year-old son Karl – has called Cape Town home since 2005. He has decades of experience in the German audio industry and is, to his core, a music-lover. Not in a flippant, ‘what are your hobbies’ sort of way, but as an unabashed evangelist for the joys of experiencing music through the finest audio systems that the world has to offer. When he opens the iron gates at Number 13 Hof Street, the eponymous address for his Thirteen Hof gallery and studio space, Spelling greets guests with a ready smile and a warm handshake. This rambling Victorian building that once belonged to interior designer Ralph Krall is also his home, a space for family and friends. More importantly, it’s the perfect environment to showcase his love for music through the high-end audio systems that represent the pinnacle of audio engineering.

Surprisingly though, despite the fact these are the finest audio set-ups money can buy, ego has no place at Thirteen Hof. While it’s easy to fall into the bigger-is-better trap of Wattage and technical wizardry, Spelling has a more philosophical approach to the remarkable sound systems showcased beneath the pressed ceilings. ‘You have to have a passion for music; otherwise you’ll never understand the fascination with these systems. The music is the first love. The real fan never looks on the component: you close your eyes, you don’t see the system, you just listen to the music,’ he says.

And yet the systems themselves are, despite Spelling’s argument to focus on the music, works of art in themselves. Hand-carved wooden exteriors embrace the best valve amplifiers on the planet. Discreet blue lights blink silently from beneath the jet-black canopy of a Gryphon Audio amplifier, like a tethered racehorse waiting for the gate to fall. The amplifier – from one of the audio world’s finest brands – sits atop a marble slab, a suitable throne for a regal piece of equipment. Gryphon Pendragon speakers frame the room, towering at head height. In the world of high-end audio systems this is the pinnacle. It, quite simply, doesn’t get better than this. Stacks of vinyl albums line one wall – a jet-black Helmut Brinkmann turntable sits quietly to one side, like a polished millstone waiting to turn – while CDs cover the marble mantelpiece. Everything from Dvorák to Prince; Spelling’s passion for music is evident.

Art adorns walls clad in luxuriant wallpaper, as a wide Chesterfield faces the speakers, begging for you to take a seat. ‘The idea is to demonstrate the best in audio, and there are different technologies to that,’ explains Spelling. ‘In transistor technology, Gryphon Audio is the best, while Unison Research are famous for their valve amplifiers. So it’s a mix of old and new technology, and the idea is to combine the best of both worlds.’ But before clients even reach the stage of plugging in their own system, there are details to consider. A stable power supply is essential for the performance and longevity of high-end audio systems, and ‘the best solution is to have the audio system on its own circuit, to separate it from other appliances completely,’ says Spelling.

Cables are another hot topic among audiophiles, and a simple power cable to connect amplifier and socket can cost upwards of R5 000. But good cables can’t save a sub-standard system, warns Spelling. ‘If the system doesn’t offer a good foundation, a good cable won’t make much difference. It can be a weak point, yes, but it’s not one of the components that deliver the music. A bad system never gets beautiful from a good cable.’

It’s a holistic view that’s typical of Spelling’s personalised approach to audio-system design; the notion that one size can never fit all. The perfect system for appreciating jazz won’t work for lovers of classical music, or for fans of vintage guitar-driven rock. ‘We try to combine components that give the best performance for the type of music you like. It doesn’t make sense for me to compromise,’ explains Spelling. ‘In the best case, I’ll get to see what the room and space is like, what the acoustics are like. I then try to put together a system that will make that person happy.’ ‘Happy’ is a word he uses often, and it’s perhaps the raison d’être of the work Spelling now does in sharing his audio systems with discerning clients in Africa’s ever-growing luxury market. Of course, happiness often comes at a price, and in the case of high-end audio, the costs can be considerable. To emulate the world-class system at Thirteen Hof will set you back in the region of R5-million. ‘It’s like everything in life. Quality is expensive, but always worth it,’ shrugs Spelling eloquently. ‘If you want to buy something to impress people, buy a Bang & Olufsen. People who buy my systems have to be music lovers; not many people understand this type of investment.’

One person who does is Klaus Stross. The German Consul in Cape Town has been collecting music in analogue and digital formats for more than 40 years, and says the purer sound of high-end systems such as Gryphon Audio transforms the experience of listening to music. ‘It’s like going from watching a movie on your mobile phone to watching it at the cinema,’ says Stross. ‘The Gryphon is outstanding. The company puts so much work into the system, and when it changes a component, it is spectacular. The Brinkmann turntable is also incredible. The way it is constructed; there’s so much precision engineering that you can only admire such an incredible piece of workmanship.’ And like many of Spelling’s clients, Stross sees his high-end audio system as a journey rather than a destination. ‘After six to nine months I know the system so well it’s time to upgrade. Technology changes and the precision of sound is completely different with upgraded components… but it always has to be a component that is friendly with your wife!’ laughs Stross. ‘Some people say you could have bought a car with the same money, but I don’t want to listen to the engine of my car!’

Stross is effusive in his praise for Spelling and Thirteen Hof, and certainly part of the appeal is the authenticity that Spelling instils at every turn. This isn’t a showroom where salespeople try to push you into purchasing a product. This is simply Spelling’s philosophy to music, art and life made real. ‘The idea was to do something without making any compromises. This had to be very authentic. This isn’t made for people to come and love the art or like the music. Thirteen Hof is about me and my opinions. You’re welcome to share this or be inspired, or to disagree. Either is fine.’ That applies equally to the art that adorns the walls. For while the focus is firmly on the audio systems and the music wafting from the Pendragon speakers, Spelling’s remarkable art collection is equally up for discussion – and for sale.

Art fills almost every free space on the walls. Local artists dominate, with the likes of Anastasia Nikolsky, Alexander Lochenkov, Christiaan Diedericks, Verna du Toit and Vanessa Berlein a few of Spelling’s personal favourites. Each work is hung in the rooms of a suburban home full of life. And – like the music – the manner of appreciating the art influences the perception of it. Indeed, art and music are fi ne bedfellows, and even Flemming E. Rasmussen, the creator of Gryphon Audio, has his roots in the art world, with a degree in painting and graphic arts from the Jutland Art Academy in Aarhus, Denmark.

At Thirteen Hof, both art and audio are elevated to a higher level. For lovers of music, in particular, there’s little chance you won’t walk away transformed and inspired. While the inherent beauty of music may well be in the ear of each listener, when it comes to the high-end audio systems curated by Joachim Spelling, the means most certainly creates magic at the end.

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